'Mama' scary in old-fashioned way

Bruce Kirkland, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 1:04 PM ET

Mama is a throwback horror movie -- but don't throw it back. It has something powerful to offer if you like genuinely creepy, scary ghost stories. This is an alternative to having buckets of blood slopped into your face in slasher horror.

The supernatural tale is briskly told through atmospheric horror techniques. The filmmakers relentlessly put their core characters into danger, putting us on edge. The special effects are excellent, especially the rendering of the ghost and the moths that represent her paranormal essence.

While the movie has weaknesses -- primarily the useless psychiatrist subplot -- the 'whoo-hoo' freakout factor in the overall story is enough to let them ride. But don't spend valuable time deconstructing it all.

One singular strength is having Jessica Chastain as the main adult protagonist. Her performance stands in stark relief to her Oscar-nominated work in Zero Dark Thirty. Yet she showcases her extraordinary skills just as efficiently, even in genre entertainment.

Mama is based on the 2008 Spanish-language short from Argentinian-born filmmakers Andres Muschietti and his sister Barbara Muschietti. Their short originated in Spain, where the siblings were schooled in cinema.

With the irrepressible Guillermo del Toro as mentor and executive producer, the Muschietti siblings transformed their jarring three-minute short into the 100-minute feature. Andres Muschietti again co-writes and directs. Barbara Muschietti co-writes and produces. But now they have a collaborator, English novelist-screenwriter Neil Cross (who created the terrific BBC series Luther).

The long Mama is different from the short Mama, which is impressionistic more than a narrative. In the short, the ghost is the murdered mother of two girls. In the feature, the ghost is a stranger. The movie opens with a psycho-selfish father kidnapping his children after murdering their mother. When he crashes his car in the wilderness, he drags the two young girls to a cabin in the woods. There, he is killed by the ghost (deservedly so for what he was about to do).

Five years later, the girls' uncle (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) finally succeeds in locating the cabin and rescuing the girls. They have been raised by someone-something they call "Mama" and are now feral beasts. Back in society, the devoted if naive uncle and his tattooed rocker girlfriend (Chastain) try to rehabilitate the girls. "Mama" has other ideas.

What I like about Mama is the interaction of the girls (Megan Charpentier as Victoria and Isabelle Nelisse as Lilly) withChastain and Coster-Waldau. Just as thrilling, the ghost is humanized and made empathetic.

But Daniel Kash's Dr. Dreyfuss really stands out -- as the movie's Achilles' heel. Not Kash's fault. His villainous role is ill-conceived. Paradoxically, his subplot is less believable than the bizarro ghost story. Without the other strong actors and compelling characters, Mama the movie would have died long before "Mama" the ghost wreaks her revenge on those who deny her.

 


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